Back to blog

Some thoughts on the iPhone

Steve unveills the iPhone

It’s pretty amazing to consider how big of a splash the iPhone (or whatever it’ll be called) has made especially considering that it isn’t to be released until the end of Q1, details are still sketchy in a lot of key areas, and hardly anyone has gotten a chance to independently review it.

Since the announcement, there’s been a lot of debate on the new device’s future and ultimate viability. It’s safe to say that there are good reasons both for and against and although I’m personally optimistic on Apple’s behalf, that’s not really what I want to talk about here. Instead, I’ll look at a few implications that I think are important in any event, but so far seem to be flying under the radar:

Wi-fi to become ubiquitous

For all the talk about Apple caving into Cingular’s demands, the inclusion of wi-fi is a huge coup. I was talking to a friend who works at RIM about this—he pointed out that this is the sort of destabilizing functionality that carriers traditionally resist (it’s outside of their comfort zone, challenges working assumptions and business models, there’s no real incentive to push the envelope, etc.). On the other hand, it’s something that, once users see it in a device, they’re going to demand it. So there’s a kind of point-of-no-return/expectation-raising quality about this development…and apparently RIM “may or may not be working on devices with built-in Wif-fi.”

cingular + at&t + wifi = ?

While I’m on the topic, here’s something else to consider. Cingular wouldn’t have taken this step without a strategy for monetizing it. Now that they’re being fully absorbed into AT&T, I think it’s even more reasonable to expect that the company will move towards offering joint cellular & blanket wi-fi type plans and services (others to follow suit). It’s a huge growth market for major carriers, plus an important way of hedging their bets as net-based communication technologies continue to proliferate. I wonder if there are any Cisco-Verizon-type mergers on the horizon…

A second wind for third-screen devices, it’s all about the interface

We were doing a bit interface design for an IPTV product recently, and noticed a lot of similarities between 10′ and small-screen/handheld device UIs. The effective resolution (taking into account viewing distance) is in the same ballpark and the navigational mechanisms (5-way + modal buttons) and metaphors (screen traversal/with limited scrolling) are quite similar.

The iPhone shows how in many ways this approach is somewhat of a cop-out. Mobile UIs need to be true to themselves. Innovations like the iPod’s clickwheel and Blackberries’ thumbwheel show how physical proximity to the device needs to be taken into account. Ergonomically speaking, using a smart phone isn’t anywhere near the same thing as operating a TV from 10′—it should be a much more intimate experience than that. If you haven’t already, take a look at this video:

Notice (at about 1min in) how Schiller flicks to scroll a list, “catches” it, then quickly acquires the target all in one fluid and natural sequence of micro-interactions. I think this is amazing stuff.

Odds and ends

Phew! Got to get out of the habit of writing these essay-ish posts here are a few other things I thought worth pointing out:

Small screen zooming UI makes semantic html even more important

Did anyone notice how ‘smart’ the zooming functionality was on the iPhone’s web browser? If not, take another look at the videos…the software must be using height and width attributes of div layers to figure out how far to zoom in and where to center the display.

Two things to mention here: one, this is a really clever trick and goes a long way to making browsing the real web viable on small screen devices; two, it would rely heavily on well-structured, simple, semantic HTML, so results are likely to vary site-by site.

Not all good news

This last one isn’t my observation, but I think it’s really interesting and a little ominous for Mac users. Could the iPhone spell the end to Mac OS X’s virus-free days? Some have pointed out how juicy a target this device is for “hackers.” Doesn’t matter that it’s a closed platform it’ll be cracked one way or another (just look at the PSP).

Now add into the mix all of the hype, universal network access, and the fact that this device is supposedly running some sort of embedded version of OS X. One would get a lot of notoriety for writing a successful virus on this thing… da da daaaa.

David Gillis More posts by David Gillis